13 January 2012

Bruce Schneier <3's TSA

Yesterday, Bruce Schneier wrote a blog post about abolishing the Department of Homeland Security. It was based, in large part, on a CATO report calling for the same citing that
DHS has too many subdivisions in too many disparate fields to operate effectively. Agencies with responsibilities for counterfeiting investigations, border security, disaster preparedness, federal law enforcement training, biological warfare defense, and computer incident response find themselves under the same cabinet official. This arrangement has not enhanced the government's competence. Americans are not safer because the head of DHS is simultaneously responsible for airport security and governmental efforts to counter potential flu epidemics.
Schneier agrees, citing his own writing from 2003:
Our nation may actually be less secure if the Department of Homeland Security eventually takes over the responsibilities of existing agencies. [...] Security is the responsibility of everyone in government. We won't defeat terrorism by finding a single thing that works all the time. We'll defeat terrorism when every little thing works in its own way, and together provides an immune system for our society. Unless the DHS distributes security responsibility even as it centralizes coordination, it won't improve our nation's security.
But Schneier takes issue with CATO's suggestion, later in the above linked report, that the TSA should abolished. Instead, he believes
abolishing the TSA isn't a good idea. Airport security should be rolled back to pre-9/11 levels, but someone is going to have to be in charge of it. Putting the airlines in charge of it doesn't make sense; their incentives are going to be passenger service rather than security. Some government agency either has to hire the screeners and staff the checkpoints, or make and enforce rules for contractor-staffed checkpoints to follow.
It would be very easy, at this point, to attack Schneier on the basis that the TSA is a colossal failure. However, that TSA is not a failure of epic proportions is not what he is arguing. In fact, Schneier himself is the progenitor of the idea that exactly "two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers". Furthermore, just this week, he penned an article calling the TSA irrelevant. So, let's look at exactly what he did say: that airline security should return to pre-9/11 levels with the government being in charge of it, either directly (government-hired goons staffing the checkpoints) or indirectly (private contractors acting under government regulation). If we hearken back to the pre-9/11 days, we find that his statement is redundant. Prior to 9/11, the government via the FAA was in charge of airline security, and what Schneier is suggesting is exactly how we arrived -- ignoring the reason(s) for the attacks themselves -- at 9/11 in the first place.

Before addressing Schneier's claim that putting the airlines in charge of airport security doesn't make sense, let's start with why his own solution doesn't make sense. First, there is the empirical evidence. As I just pointed out, 9/11 happened on the government's watch. While I agree that airline security should be rolled back to pre-9/11 levels, putting/leaving the government in charge of it is ludicrous, and the reason for that is that the government's interests do not align with that of the traveling public. Ostensibly, both care about flight safety. But in reality, as Schneier himself points out relentlessly, the TSA fails to provide this on any level. Just last month, a Vanity Fair writer explained how Schneier helped him circumvent TSA security to meet Schneier at the gate when his flight arrived. Then there's my own personal experience: after leaving the screening area (without being screened), the TSA demanded that I return because they feared that I may have an explosive device on my person. Why would they usher me back to the most crowed area of the airport if they feared that I had explosives? In reality, the government's interest(s) lie in an ever increasing role in security. This provides, not an actual increase in security, but an ever increasing ability to funnel money to favored contractors and further ratchet up the police state apparatus for the same reason.

The other reason that having the government in charge of airline security doesn't make sense is the same reason that letting the airlines manage their own security does: the profit and loss test. The basic idea is that when a business produces a product that consumers want at a cost that is less than what consumers are willing to pay, then the business profits. If any of these conditions are not met, the business suffers a loss. If the business does not change, then it goes out of business, government intervention notwithstanding.

Let's apply this test to the government's handling of airline security. It is producing a product that consumers want, namely, security. It is producing it at a cost of approximately $8.8 billion per year according to the federal government's 2011 budget. But this is where the profit and loss test ends for the TSA or any government entity. The profit and loss test requires that consumers of a product voluntarily pay or not pay for it. The government is funded via compulsory taxation. Therefore, the government need not concern itself with whether or not it is producing a product that people want or, more importantly, in a way that they want. That the government acts in exactly this way is borne out by reality. The TSA's budget during its first full year of funding in 2003 was $4.8 billion. It's current budget, only 8 years on, is a near 100% increase from that initial budget. This comes despite repeated TSA bungles including sleeping on the job, physically harassing passengers, allowing criminal activity to bypass security, stealing from passengers... the list goes on and on. If the TSA was a private corporation, consumers would have put it out of business almost 10 years ago. Instead, its costs are higher than ever and rising with no end in sight. In fact, the TSA's only measurable goal is total security, something that requires an absolute police state. Despite the desire on the part of the traveling public for total security, I'd wager that none would actually want to pay for it in terms of money or liberty required to implement said police state.

Now we can return to Schneier's claim that putting airline security in the hands of the airlines makes no sense. He believes this because he thinks that the airlines' focus will be on passenger service instead of security. Somebody didn't think through his rationale, completely. Tsk, tsk. Security is part and parcel of the service provided by the airlines. No passenger is going to be concerned about a glass of soda and a bag of peanuts or that he didn't get a blanket and a fluffy pillow if his plane is commandeered or blown up by a terrorist. Not only that, but the loss of a plane costs an airline hugely. There is of course the capital loss of the plane and the fuel, but more than that, if the airline wants to stay in business it's not only going to have to beef up its security, but it is going to have to figure out how to prove to passengers that it had changed its ways so that they'd be willing to fly again. We see then, that the airlines' interests, unlike the government's, align perfectly with the traveling public. In addition, airlines carry insurance for their operations. This means that airlines want their operations to be safe and secure because they don't want their premiums to rise in the event of an accident, and the airlines' insurance companies have every incentive to pressure the airlines to keep their operations safe and secure lest the insurance company have to pay out a multi-million, possibly billion, dollar claim.

"We can't trust the airlines", I hear you scream. "They're greedy capitalists!" Indeed they are, and that's exactly why the system would work. The airlines, unlike the government, cannot just take consumers' money to fund their operations. They must induce consumers to voluntarily give money to them. Thus, the airlines are subject to the profit and loss test described earlier. If the airlines provide too little security, passengers won't be willing to fly. The airlines will have saved some money by skimping on security, but the lack of income will ultimately result in losses. If they provide too much security, either the costs will drive ticket prices to a level that consumers are unwilling to pay, or consumers will find alternate means of travel because they find the security required by the airlines too onerous. In either event, the airlines will again find themselves losing money. In order to make money, the airlines will have to provide enough security to satisfy their passengers' desire for safety and their insurance companies' risk tolerance while not imposing so much security that passengers seek other airlines or other modes of travel entirely to avoid the costs and hassles.

Astonishingly, a self-correcting and self-policing system like this hasn't taken hold. Part of the reason for this is human nature. Humans have demonstrated a surprising inability to correlate events with the likelihood of their occurrence. For example, very few people are concerned about choking to death on their own vomit. However, it turns out that one is 9 times more likely to die by this method than via an act of terrorism. This is a topic that Bruce Schneier has also written about repeatedly. Because of this, people always demand ever more security in the event of some kind of accident or attack. Normally, the costs of these demands would temper them somewhat, but this doesn't happen because of government involvement. This is the other reason that a free market system has not taken hold: the government provides moral hazard. The airlines prefer that the government be involved because by using government provided security and/or standards, responsibility for security failures falls on the government, not the airlines. When something tragic occurs, the airlines can point to the government as the failure. Insurance companies are likewise not terribly worried about having to pay airline claims because the government has proven willing to bail them out. Even consumers are unwitting accomplices in this system because the costs of security have been separated from the cost of a ticket. Instead, these costs are (or would normally be) imposed as taxes, but even if one went looking for them, they would be difficult to find as the government has taken to inflating the currency in order to finance its operations. The increased costs of security are found in the rising prices of everyday items like milk, rent, electricity, and gasoline.

The government's involvement in airline security is not only an abject failure but an impediment to allowing a free(d) market to discover what the people really want when it comes to airline security. Bruce Schneier is a smart guy, and he's one of the TSA's harshest critics. He's written extensively about security and the trade-offs made in its name; he's no stranger to economics, especially when it comes to security. In light of this, I can only conclude from his desire to keep the government involved in airline security that he secretly loves the TSA.

05 January 2012

Who's still standing?

This morning I was reading a story on the Volokh Conspiracy about how a judge in Georgia has allowed a lawsuit challenging Obama's listing on that state's presidential election ballot. A sentence in the middle of the article caught my attention:
Similar challenges have generally been rejected on procedural grounds, such as on the grounds that plaintiffs lack standing to sue because they have no greater stake in the matter than any other citizen. Generally speaking, federal courts have concluded that in such cases where the plaintiff doesn’t have a particularized stake in the matter, the resolution even of constitutional controversies should be left to the political process and not to courts.
This reminded me of the Kucinich lawsuit against Obama claiming the latter's violation of the War Powers Act in sending forces to Libya in early 2011. This lawsuit was dismissed for a similar reason -- lack of standing:
Judge Walton held the members of Congress lacked standing to bring the challenge, as they had ample legislative means at their disposal to oppose the President’s use of military force.
I haven't read the decision in this case, but I suspect that the judge's decision rested, at least partially, on the "political question" doctrine. This is the idea that the judicial branch should "avoid inserting itself into conflicts between branches of the federal government" and that "some questions [are] best resolved through the political process". This strikes me as incorrect, as it should be justiciable as to whether or not the president's actions were in accordance with the War Powers Act (or whether that act is itself constitutional). But I digress.

The point is that if the government breaks the law (in a general enough way), it would seem that no one has standing to challenge that action. Say the executive branch eavesdrops on everyone's communications, in clear violation of the fourth amendment, and that this is readily provable and a potential court case is not subject to being tossed under the state secrets doctrine. It seems that the case would still be tossed under the theory that everyone is equally harmed/oppressed, so none have standing to challenge. Furthermore, Congess is powerless here (via the courts) for the same reason Kucinich was unable to stop Obama's action in Libya: Congress has "ample legislative means at their disposal to oppose the President", namely defunding and impeachment.

But defunding and impeachment are themselves political, not judicial actions. They require the votes of members that (may) have an interest in the outcome of these actions that is not necessarily aligned with upholding the constitution or the laws or even the interests of justice. The entire idea underlying the court system is that it is comprised of impartial, disinterested officials. (Whether or not this is true in practice is a separate matter.) The executive and legislative branches are explicitly not comprised of such people. If the court is unwilling to get involved, then we must resign ourselves to the idea that the law is whatever the majority of the Congress says it is (or fails to say that it isn't).

While this may be comforting to some, in that these officers are (in theory) the "people" themselves, democracy is no panacea:
But what kind of person runs for public office? Madison failed to foresee that even the so-called "separation of powers" could not restrain men forever. Entry into politics does not require any particular skill or morality. It simply requires some combination of money, connections, personality, and a desire to rule others, particularly the last one. In fact, that last reason is probably the main reason that anyone runs for office. The idea that the world would be a better place if was in charge is probably not foreign to anyone. To succeed in government, however, involves backroom deals and "compromises" ensuring that only the least moral and most willing to deal away their principles will rise to the top. Thus, government will ultimately be populated with the worst people in society, and it is only a matter of time before they decide to work together to turn their legal authority to use force on the people themselves.
It would seem that we are inexorably on a path to this end in which we will be ruled by the oligarchs in office and their benefactors or by the "people" both of which, in practice, believe that positive law is superior to and therefore trumps natural law. No matter which prevails, one thing is certain: it's not going to be pleasant.

02 January 2012

Father(land) knows best

Here in California, a slew of new laws went into effect yesterday, and many of them seem to have to do with children. New laws add additional regulations to what children can eat (child care centers, which serve up to 1.2 million children, can provide only unflavored nonfat or low-fat milk and beverages that lack added sweeteners), where they can spend their money (people under the age of 18 cannot use ultraviolet tanning devices (even with parents' permission)), and how they can travel:
Many young car passengers, meanwhile, will have to get back in the booster seat Sunday under legislation signed in October.  
The law requires kids to be in booster seats until they are at least 8 years old or 4 feet, 9 inches or taller. Since 2002, children have had to ride in booster seats until they are 6 years old or 60 pounds.
Note the first sentence... "will have to get back into the booster seat". Yes, that's right, a 6 or 7 year old who graduated from the nanny state's previous overbearing protection, who has safely ridden with a regular seat belt for possibly a year or more, has suddenly found him/herself in grave danger. Overnight, without warning, and by state decree, the world has once again become unsafe. What was legal (and safe) yesterday is illegal (and unsafe) today. Funny how that works, isn't it?

What's even more interesting is that SB 929 was signed by the same man who, only three months earlier, vetoed SB 105, saying, "Not every human problem deserves a law." For those unaware, SB 105 would have criminalized the act of skiing or snowboarding by a minor without a helmet. Given the intellectual inconsistency between the passage of SB 929 and the veto of SB 105, one might be given to believe that companies like Bell and Giro simply missed their opportunity to "grease the palm" of government. Fortunately, companies like Graco and Britax can rest easy knowing that the state is coercing consumers via the force of law into buying their products for at least two more years.

It's amazing to me that people will cry out when forced to purchase health insurance at the end of a government gun but see no trouble with imposing the purchase of car seats in the same manner. It's for the children, though! I mean, isn't it? Maybe not. For 7 years, at least, the data have been staring everyone in the face:
The answer can be found in a trove of government data called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which compiles police reports on all fatal crashes in the U.S. since 1975. These data include every imaginable variable in a crash, including whether the occupants were restrained and how. 
Even a quick look at the FARS data reveals a striking result: among children 2 and older, the death rate is no lower for those traveling in any kind of car seat than for those wearing seat belts. There are many reasons, of course, that this raw data might be misleading. Perhaps kids in car seats are, on average, in worse wrecks. Or maybe their parents drive smaller cars, which might provide less protection. 
But no matter what you control for in the FARS data, the results don't change. In recent crashes and old ones, in big vehicles and small, in one-car crashes and multiple-vehicle crashes, there is no evidence that car seats do a better job than seat belts in saving the lives of children older than 2. (In certain kinds of crashes -- rear-enders, for instance -- car seats actually perform worse.)
If you're still not convinced that these laws serve no useful purpose except to enrich the companies that make the products that consumers are compelled to buy, then you need look no further than an earlier excerpt from the same article:
Perhaps the single most compelling statistic about car seats in the NHTSA manual was this one: ''They are 54 percent effective in reducing deaths for children ages 1 to 4 in passenger cars.'' 
But 54 percent effective compared with what? The answer, it turns out, is this: Compared with a child's riding completely unrestrained.
You read that right; in order to scare you into compliance, the government compares the effectiveness of child car seats, not against the effectiveness of seat belts, but against that of riding in a car completely unrestrained! The data show that car seats are no more effective than seat belts for children over 2 and in some cases can actually be worse. Why then is the government pushing car seats onto the populace for another 6 years?! Whether totalitarianism or corporatism, I'll leave for you to decide. One thing is for certain, however; it is not for your benefit.